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English: Logical or Plain Bizarre?

Updated on December 2, 2013
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If English is your native language, some of its stranger elements may have passed into your mind unnoticed, easily accepted and absorbed into your vocabulary through frequent contact with other English speakers. However, if you've learned English as a foreign language, studied it at an academic level, or ever taken pause to truly reflect on its spelling and pronunciation, you will likely have noticed some odd peculiarities. Does this strangeness contribute to the uniqueness and diversity of the language, or simply engender unnecessary confusion? I'll let you be the judge, with some of the greatest oddities that English has to offer:

First page of Beowulf, written in Old English.
First page of Beowulf, written in Old English. | Source

The Problems Began Way Back Around 500 AD

One explanation for many of the seemingly illogical elements of English is the vastness of cultures and languages that have contributed to its composition. Following the fall of Rome in 476 AD, England was occupied by the Anglo-Saxons, formed from Germanic tribes who used a runic alphabet and communicated using their own Anglo-Saxon words rather than Latin. This was all very well and good until, around 600 AD, Christian missionaries arrived, bringing with them the word of God, a word that just happened to be spoken in Latin. The popularity of Christianity helped the Latin vernacular to spread throughout England, particularly assimilating words pertaining to the church, such as 'martyr', into the language. This meagre Latin, however, was not enough to dominate the Anglo-Saxon language that was already in vogue, forcing those who landed to endeavour to shape their Roman alphabet around runic letters and foreign sounds. For a number of years, scribes actually used elements of the runic alphabet in order to capture the sounds they heard, including Þþ (Thorn - pronounced like the 'th' in its name) and Ðð (Eth - a slightly different 'th' pronunciation). However, as those unfamiliar with the runic alphabet sought more and more to replace its foreign letters with the familiarity of Roman ones, þ merged into the 'th' combination recognisable today, just as other familiar letter combinations, including 'gh', sprang up to account for strange-sounding Anglo-Saxon consonants. Although English eventually lost the harsh back-of-the-throat noise for which the 'gh' combination was invented, the spelling had already been standardised, meaning that, in today's English, words such as 'thought' bare a spelling entirely unreflective of pronunciation, harkening back to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons.

Some Latin Words Transmitted to English

Religion
Politics/Law
Food
Language
The Body
Amen
Dictator
Cinnamon
Apostrophe
Abdomen
Genesis
Senator
Asparagus
Hyphen
Thorax
Bishop
Tribunal
Citrus
Simile
Pelvis
Ships like this one allowed for the Viking invasion, drastically influencing the English language.
Ships like this one allowed for the Viking invasion, drastically influencing the English language. | Source

Some English words of Old Norse Origin

Origins
English
Kaka
Cake
Fok
Fog
Geysa
Geyser

Moving on to the 8th Century ...

England, it seems, was forever facing invasion by war-like peoples, and the conquests of the Vikings, hailing from Norway, Sweden, and primarily Denmark, in the 8th century, was no exception. Pillaging numerous towns and settling in England, the Vikings left a lasting impression upon English through the influence of Old Norse, another language of Germanic origin. The Vikings are responsible for many English words beginning with 'sk', including 'ski' and 'skull', and, given their cold climate, are also thought to have contributed to many words pertaining to weather, including 'sleet' and 'gale'. Additionally, their violent lifestyles led to the incorporation of words such as 'anger', 'knife', and 'die' (whilst I'm on the topic, you may have just noticed that 'knife' is another one of those peculiar words with a spelling entirely unrepresentative of its pronunciation. Why not 'nife' or a pronunciation that voices the 'k' consonant? you ask. Don't worry, we'll come back to that one.) Indeed, during their time in England the Vikings seem to have been responsible for the transmission of some 2000 words into the developing English language, adding yet another dimension to the already convoluted Latin and Germanic foundations.

Page from Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', written in Middle English.
Page from Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', written in Middle English. | Source

Interaction Across the Channel

I'm sure something significant happened around 1066. What was it again? Let me think ... oh, yes, King William earned the epithet 'Conquerer' by doing just that: defeating the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, in the Battle of Hastings. I'm sure you can already see the implication of such a defeat. As the official language of the new monarch, French also became the language of the elite, especially utilised in official business and thus transmitting words such as 'judge' and 'evidence' through to English. This meant that whilst the elite spoke French and the Church spoke Latin, the everyday people residing in England spoke English, or at least a hybrid of Latin, French and Anglo-Saxon Old English that was slowly developing into the language we know today. The divide between the French elite and English commoners is also one of the reasons why English has developed the rather unique trend of having different names for animals and meat, such as cow and beef and pig and pork. This is because the common English farmers retained the use of English for the names of the animals, whilst the French elite, who primarily only saw these animals when they were served during dinner, influenced the name of the meat itself. It's predicted that the Normans lent thousands of words to the English language, generating the shift from Old English to the Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer. But why don't we now speak French? you ask. Well, simply because the English triumph against the French during the Hundred Years' War led to a lot of changes in England, including the privilege to retain the language. English became dominant, and continued to grow and develop. Still not convoluted enough for you? Let's press on ...

Scene 51 of the Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the Battle of Hastings.
Scene 51 of the Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the Battle of Hastings. | Source
The printing press
The printing press | Source

I'll Take a Vowel, Please!

You may've heard of the Great Vowel Shift before, but perhaps you're not too familiar with its significant impact upon the language that many of us speak today. From about 1350-1700, the English language underwent a major change in pronunciation, likely due to the mass migration engendered by the Black Death in the late 14th century, forcing the assimilation of numerous dialects and accents. Vowels started to become shorter, gradually shifting Middle English into Early Modern English - a much more recognisable form of the language, and indeed encountered by most students at some point in Shakespeare. The fact that this language shift coincided with the introduction of the printing press in the 1470s, however, is the primary reason for many of the peculiarities in the English language. The mass production of media provided a need for the standardisation of spelling, but many words were standardised without considering the recent shifts in pronunciation, and this is where we return to words like 'knife'. The shift meant that English lost many of its sounds, including the 'k' sound from 'kn' words, but spelling had already been established, accounting for the vast number of silent letters and odd pronunciation that is so frustrating for many English students today.

Samuel Johnson attempted to standardise English with his compilation of the first dictionary.
Samuel Johnson attempted to standardise English with his compilation of the first dictionary. | Source

Some of Johnson's definitions:

  • Jobbernowl: Loggerhead; blockhead
  • Oats: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people
  • Far-fetch: A deep stratagem. A ludicrous word

Progression into Late Modern English

So how did English get from there to here? ... Ah, Shakespeare, that well known playwright born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, but immortalised (much to the frustration of students everywhere) by his ceaseless moulding of the English language. It's estimated that Shakespeare added approximately 2000 new words to English, along with common household phrases like 'dead as a doornail' and 'too much of a good thing'. One man alone, however, cannot change a language, and indeed English continued to grow and develop, particularly influenced by the King James' version of the Bible, released in 1611. Quickly becoming the most popular translation, this version of the Bible was preached earnestly in church and read frequently by the common man, with its language and phrases, such as the ever popular idea about a leopard being unable to change its spots, becoming firmly imbedded in the minds of the people and therefore drastically influencing the language itself. Additionally, the expansion of science and medicine during the Renaissance forced the invention of many new words, particularly of those pertaining to the body or bodily functions. With the development of science and learning came an interest in the world, necessitating British exploration, expansion and colonisation. Such a massive empire influenced by a large number of cultures and languages rendered the constant development of English during and after the Renaissance inevitable, as the colonists stole words from every corner of the globe, whilst also leaving their own language behind and allowing numerous dialects and accents to develop. If English is now sounding fairly complicated and rather difficult to keep track of, the people of the day (at least some of them) would have agreed with you. Desires to standardise spelling and definitions led to Samuel Johnson's work on the first dictionary in the 18th century, an idea later modified in 1857 with the comissioning of the Oxford English dictionary, now under constant revision due to the frequent addition of words. Indeed, from the spread of American English through its booming film industry and economic culture, to the invention of the Internet, English has undergone so many modifications and is spoken by so many cultures, that it is difficult to truly trace its progression. One thing seems clear, however: English, developed over centuries with the help of around 350 other languages, is a truly valuable, unique, and interesting tongue.

  • Old English (think Beowulf)
  • Middle English (think Chaucer)
  • Early Modern English (think Shakespeare)
  • Late Modern English (think of your own language)

Did You Catch All That?

It's okay if you didn't. Basically English is an old language with a long history. It is important to remember that English is considered to have four major phases:

  • The Anglo-Saxons, providing the Germanic base
  • The Vikings, providing their Germanic Old Norse
  • The Normans, providing French

English has borrowed and outright stolen words from about 350 languages, but the main contributors seem to be:

  • The Black Death, with its possible prompting of the Great Vowel Shift
  • The introduction of the printing press
  • The rise of theatre and science during the Renaissance
  • The rise of colonisation and exploration
  • The new translation of the Bible and attempts at compiling dictionaries
  • The invention of the Internet and abbreviated forms of language

Don't forget that a number of events also drastically aided the development of English. These events not only helped to standardise the language, but also enabled to it to grow on a global scale, leading to the numerous accents and dialects spoken throughout the world today. These events include:

Whose Influence Do You Think Was the Most Significant?

See results

If you're interested in the English Language, some of these other topics may take your fancy. Happy reading!

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    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 3 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      I find your hub quite fascinating, I remember studying this in school. This is not an article that you can just run through but is worthy of bookmark. Thank you for doing such an awesome job. Be well and happy hubbing.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I have been a teacher of English for a long time, to foreign students, in mainstream schools and in an independent school for dyslexics. I never cease to find it a fascinating subject. It's always a relief for dyslexics to find out that our weird spelling has a reason (eg the Saxon influence) and isn't there just to trip them up! The evolution of language continues (not always for the better). Explanations like this help others realise why and therefore sub-patterns can be seen within the whole. The history gives reasons for the 'now'. Great illustrations and explanations here! Voted up etc.

    • samwrites21 profile image
      Author

      Sam 3 years ago from Melbourne

      Thanks for all your feedback and contribution!

      As for 'borrowing' and 'stealing' words ... I mostly employed the phrase hyperbolically, but I guess I was subconsciously thinking about the difference between the transmission of words through the settlement of outside cultures (as with Latin through the influence of the Christian Missionaries) and the transmission of words through settlement by the British themselves (as with words like 'racoon', which comes from the native Americans). I guess I was also thinking about the difference between loan words like 'croissant' and 'forte', which are obviously directly borrowed from another language, and between words that have been completely anglicised, with their roots in other languages being largely forgotten. However, as you point out, Robert, this is of course just the way a language evolves, and the negative connotations of 'steal' are in no way to be employed here, as the vastness of English and its contributors is one of the things I love about the language.

      Once again, thanks for all your feedback. It's great to see so many people interested in the history of English.

    • Scott Tuttle profile image

      Scott Tuttle 3 years ago from United States

      Until I became an ESL teacher, I never realized just how strange and inconsistent the grammar rules and the orthography of the English language really is. It's really a crazy language.

    • profile image

      Robert Abrahamsen 3 years ago

      What's the difference between borrowing and outright stealing words from other languages? When words are borrowed are they returned with interest? When they're outright stolen do they disappear from the vocabularies of the native speakers? Don't all languages adopt words from and contribute words to other languages? Isn't that how language evolves?

    • AliceFournier profile image

      Alice Fournier 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      I'm French, I've been studying English for a long time, but this answers a lot of my questions about this beautiful language.

    • samwrites21 profile image
      Author

      Sam 3 years ago from Melbourne

      Glad you both found it of some help. I certainly think it's an interesting topic! Thanks for the feedback.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 3 years ago

      Quite interesting. I particularly enjoyed the Norse section, for obvious reasons, but very well done. I'll be voting this up.

    • April Garner profile image

      April Garner 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      This is going to help me answer a lot of the "why?" questions surrounding language I get asked by my five year old. Fascinating article - thanks!